How to Make a Goal Switch in Your Screenplay


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As Seen On

In life we’re always trying to assign cause and effect to make sense of things. We create a narrative so we can feel like we understand what’s happening. For example:

If your surgical intern sister drops out of her program to become a children’s birthday party clown, your parents are going to take that to mean something BIG has happened to cause it.

Since stories help us process the world, we look for cause-and-effect there too. We want to understand why, what it all means.

In a story, like in life, if a character lets go of a goal that’s very important to them in favor of pursuing something else, we know this change is big and meaningful and its effect will ripple through the story for scenes to come. (And if not, we’ll be confused or dissatisfied.)

This type of “goal switch” is a specific kind of plot turn that should be wielded with care, but can be a useful tool for breaking your story – so let’s talk about how to use it.

What is a goal switch?

When we watch a movie, what we’re really watching and mentally tracking is the protagonist’s pursuit of a story goal.

  • Brothers on a bank-robbing spree, trying to get that money to their own bank in time.
  • An FBI trainee trying to stop a serial killer.
  • A lovelorn teenager trying to win over the object of his affections.

The goal is established at the Break into Act 2, and at the Climax we know the outcome: success or failure. That’s the default setting of a 3-act story. The plot through Acts 2 and 3 shows us the progress. Sometimes the protagonist gets closer to the goal. Sometimes he experiences setbacks.

And sometimes… something happens that makes the protagonist switch his goal altogether.

To be clear: in many stories, maybe most, the protagonist maintains the same goal from the Break into Act 2, all the way through the Climax.

But when the events of the story cause the protagonist to change his story goal, that is what we’re calling a “goal switch.”

Switch with care

As mentioned, a goal switch can be a powerful, meaningful plot turn and a great escalation in the story. But used will-nilly, goal switches can make a story feel random and disjointed.

Remember, the story goal – whatever the protagonist is trying to accomplish – should be very, very important to him. He should want it desperately. That’s one of the things that makes the audience care. (After all, if the character doesn’t care, why should we?)

So something big has to happen if that character is going to drop his vitally important goal and pursue something else. We don’t want to feel like the protagonist has jumped tracks on a whim. If there isn’t a good reason for it, your audience will check out because the story will feel too arbitrary.

Where to use a goal switch

Because it’s such a significant turn, if a goal switch happens it’s almost always at either the Midpoint or the Break into Act 3, which – as you know – are two major plot points. (And pretty much the only two major plot points where a goal switch could happen, if you think about it.)

So depending on the purpose of your goal switch and the effect you want it to reveal in the story, your goal switch will likely land at one of these two spots.

Can you have both? There are no absolute rules, of course, but probably not. If the character changes what he wants too often, it ends up feeling like nothing is very important and then it’s hard for the audience to care about what’s happening.

Use your goal switches sparingly and deliberately.

Movie examples

Legally Blonde

In Legally Blonde, Elle Woods enters Act 2 attending law school as a means to win back her man. But at the midpoint she realizes he’s never going to see her as “wife material” so she sets out to beat him at law school instead.

She’s spent half the movie obsessing about this guy, so we know how important winning him back is to her and how hurt she is when he reveals it’s never going to happen. With this goal switch, the conflict escalates – it’s much harder for her to win Harvard Law than to get the guy – and stakes are raised, since her pride and self-worth are now on the line.

If you look closely you may notice that the two goals are united under the umbrella of Elle’s character arc. She goes from feeling like being Warner’s wife is the ultimate achievement, to becoming an independent woman at the top of her law school class, and that goal switch is a pivotal moment in that arc. This is one great effect to be had from a goal switch – it can signify something very meaningful is occurring in the character’s growth.

Game Night

In Game Night, married couple Max and Annie start Act 2 with the goal of beating his brother Brooks at the game he’s planned for their group of friends. But at the Midpoint they learn the “staged” kidnapping isn’t a game – Brooks is really in trouble. Max and Annie’s new goal becomes to save Brooks.

So the goal switches from “beat Brooks” to “save Brooks” when the characters discover it’s not a game, the danger is real. This new information increases opposition and raises the stakes in a huge way, right on time at the Midpoint.

Silver Linings Playbook

In Silver Linings Playbook, Pat spends all of Act 2 trying to win back his ex-wife. This pursuit puts him in partnership with Tiffany, and by the end of Act 2 Pat realizes she’s been falling in love with him – and vice-versa – this whole time. Because of this big realization, he abandons the goal of reuniting with his ex-wife and at the Break into Act 3 he begins pursuing his new goal: a relationship with Tiffany.

This is a big deal and it indicates major change in the character. And this is a pretty classic Break-into-3-goal-switch: the character realizes they’ve been pursuing the wrong thing, and now that they’ve grown and changed over the course of the story, they make a big, final push to achieve the “right” goal – the thing they now know will actually make them happy.

So that’s a goal switch. What now?

Cool observations, but when is this information actually useful? Well, when you’re in the initial story-breaking phase, you can use the idea of a “goal switch” as a brainstorming prompt to come up with different goals the character might pursue, as well as possible plot events that could cause the goal switch.

You might think about what your character wants initially, and whether that’s the “right” thing. Or think about what might happen if you take their initial goal off the table completely. What would they pursue then?

You might play around with what the story looks like if you use one of these big story turns at the Midpoint, and then try it out at the Break into Act 3.

Does it increase opposition? Raise the stakes? Send the story in an exciting new direction? Accelerate the character’s arc? Reveal something thematic or meaningful about the character’s journey?

As your story takes shape, you can extrapolate from the big plot points. When you know what the goal is, whether it stays the same or changes somewhere along the way, you can think of ways your protagonist will pursue what they want – steps in that process for each goal you’re working with. (You might even use the four Act 2 sequences and the two Act 3 sequences we talked about before.) Building the story step by step.

What’s important to the character tells us who he is

In movies, the story goal is usually a big, audacious, dangerous, and/or scary thing. So for a character to take on something like that, it has to be very important to him. And just like that first goal can tell us a lot about the character, when something causes him to change that goal and go for something else – we learn something new about him, maybe even something he’s just learned about himself.

We’re always looking for those cause-and-effect connections, because that’s how we understand what it all means. So use a goal switch deliberately but sparingly. It can be a powerful plot turn and a useful tool in your story breaking process.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.